After a big meal, do you get a burning sensation in the chest, or the feeling of a lump in your throat? It might be more than a bit of indigestion – and there are some simple dietary changes that can help ease those acid attacks
Ever found yourself struck with a burning sensation in the throat or chest? Or have issues with burping and indigestion that make you feel as if you’ve got a lump in your throat? These are all common acid reflux symptoms, which, while not usually serious, can be extremely uncomfortable and impact your mental health. A study of patients with reflux found more than 40% of them had anxiety, and 34% had depression. Part of this may be due to worrying about symptoms and dealing with painful flare-ups (which can make socialising or eating your favourite foods tricky).
While many with reflux need to take medication (usually a proton pump inhibitor, which reduces the production of acid), others can find diet changes useful (whether tried alone or alongside medication). This may include avoiding certain trigger foods, changing the times you eat, or knowing what foods to turn to when reflux flares. Here are our top tips for eating to beat acid reflux.
1. Consider your morning brew carefully
Your morning cuppa could get your reflux off to a bad start. A recent study of more than 250,000 women with reflux, found a correlation between those who had the highest intake of coffee, tea, and soda, and reflux, while replacing these with water reduced the risk.
“High caffeine intake of more than the recommended upper intake of 400mg per day (around four coffees or six teas) can cause the muscle into the stomach to relax and open, which allows acid to move up into the oesophagus,” explains nutritionist Shannon Western.
Switching to herbal tea may be a helpful idea, but you may want to hold the peppermint for now – some people find this aggravates their reflux rather than helping it.
2. Swap your takeaway
Many people notice their reflux worsen after a takeaway or a fancy meal out, but why is this? Well, reflux symptoms have been shown to happen more often when people ate food that was fatty, fried, or spicy – something that we can often find in our favourite takeaways.
“These can trigger reflux because they cause the sphincter into the stomach (a muscular ring) to open up and let stomach acid come up the oesophagus,” explains Shannon.
That’s not to say takeaways are out of the question, but you might find some swaps could be useful: if spicy foods are a trigger, could you try a milder dish? If fatty fried foods make your reflux worse, then could you opt for a lower-fat takeaway, such as sushi or grilled fish?
3. Eat your dinner earlier in the day
With busy days, many of us might find ourselves not sitting down for dinner until late in the evening. This can cause night-time reflux to strike – one study found that increasing the gap between dinner and bedtime can help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), citing a gap of four hours-plus the most useful. While this isn’t always possible, scheduling dinner earlier in the day, or eating your biggest meal at lunch, with a smaller supper, might help.
4. Give ginger a go
While spicy food can be a trigger, one spice that is thought to be helpful in the battle against reflux is ginger. Ginger is known for its anti-nausea properties, which is ideal since acid reflux can often cause feelings of sickness (and even vomiting, in rare cases). It’s also known to support the digestive tract in general: brew up ginger tea with fresh ginger and lemon, or add a few pieces to your stir fry.
5. Adopt a Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet has been proven to have many health benefits – from helping to prevent cognitive decline to slashing your risk of a heart attack. But could it also help you tackle reflux, too? There’s some evidence to suggest it might actually be as beneficial as common reflux meds. One study compared those treated with PPIs to those who adopted a plant-based Mediterranean diet (alongside alkaline water) and found the latter was actually more effective. A Mediterranean diet focuses on wholegrain, fruits, and vegetables, and avoids processed foods and red meat.
6. Calcium-rich foods could be helpful
We’ve all heard the remedy of sipping on a glass of milk when reflux strikes, but why is it so effective? Well, it’s all to do with high calcium content – which is why calcium carbonate is often the main ingredient of antacids we take to neutralise our stomach acid. Dietary calcium can help, but be mindful of the foods you use – for example, full-fat milk is packed with calcium but you may find the dairy or high fat content exacerbates symptoms. There are many other calcium-rich foods that don’t contain dairy if that’s on the list, such as fortified plant-based milks and almonds.
7. Understand your gut bacteria
The bacteria in our guts are closely connected to reflux, even though symptoms occur much further up in the digestive tract. Firstly, it’s important to know about H. pylori – a bacterial infection which is connected to acid reflux. H. pylori can develop from childhood, and may stay in your stomach for decades without causing any problems – but, for some, it can go on to cause stomach ulcers and reflux symptoms. It’s important your GP tests you for H. pylori if your reflux is ongoing, and antibiotics can be prescribed to quickly treat the infection.
Even if you don’t have H. pylori, you might find probiotics rather than antibiotics worth trying – while we don’t know much yet about reflux and probiotics in particular, they can help support the overall health of your digestive tract.
8. It’s not just about what you eat
As well as considering the types of food you eat (and when you eat it), Shannon advises that how you eat is just as important.
“Some changes that might be helpful are ensuring you eat in an upright position and avoid lying down close to finishing a meal, making sure to chew food properly, and don’t leave too long between eating (i.e. eating at least every 3–4 hours),” she adds.
Diet change may not replace medication, and it’s always important to have a chat with your GP before making any big changes, but can be a great help when reflux strikes. However, if your symptoms don’t ease or suddenly worsen, do make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible.
Find out more by visiting nutritionist-resource.org.uk